Service dog earns a big treat—a college degree

University of West Georgia awards an honorary degree for the first time to a canine companion during commencement ceremonies planned to honor spring, summer and fall 2020 graduates.
By: | December 7, 2020
Maggie Leptrone and her diabetic alert dog, Mona, crossed the University of West Georgia commencement stage on Saturday to receive their degrees from President Brendan B. Kelly.Maggie Leptrone and her diabetic alert dog, Mona, crossed the University of West Georgia commencement stage on Saturday to receive their degrees from President Brendan B. Kelly.

Maggie Leptrone didn’t get through her nursing studies alone, so it was fitting that she didn’t walk across the commencement stage alone either. Officials felt her Diabetic Alert Dog, Mona, deserved a wag as recognition as well. So Mona received an honorary “dog-ree” for accompanying Leptrone to classes, labs and her clinical placement.

“Maggie—and Mona, of course—are truly extraordinary,” said Jenny Schuessler, dean of the Tanner Health System School of Nursing, in an announcement. “Having been a diabetic for most of her life, Maggie knows what it’s like to need good nursing care, so to see her excel through nursing school has been such a rewarding experience. She credits the supportive care from her nursing professors for her success, but the faculty give all the credit to Maggie.”

Leptrone, who manages Type I diabetes, drifted into a “mini-coma” during her sleep as a junior in high school when her blood sugar dropped. It was then that her parents decided to find her a diabetic alert dog who could be with her in college. With her bachelor’s degree in nursing, she will be working in the intensive care unit with WellStar Health System.

More than 1,250 graduates walked the stage during the commencement, the first in-person one of 2020.  Held on Saturday, December 5, the event was broken into three separate student ceremonies by academic college, one ceremony in the morning and two in the afternoon. The outdoor venue, University Stadium, can seat 10,000 people when a pandemic isn’t the current situation. Following guidance from CDC officials, the Governor’s COVID-19 Task Force, and the Georgia Department of Public Health, university leaders chose the venue so that appropriate physical distancing could be accomplished.

Each student received four guest tickets, and guests were clustered in their own group and physically distanced from other groups. Students were seated on the field upon arrival, since a student processional would require close proximity. As they crossed the stage, graduates had their pictures taken but were not able to engage in the traditional handshake with the president.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.